On electric bike, zooming around Tucson is a breeze


On a muggy monsoon morning early in July, I drove to my friend Susan Silverman’s house to test ride her electric bike. She had spoken so enthusiastically about it and I’d admired it when she rode it to events. I’d decided to spend part of my vacation researching and buying one myself.

As soon as she wheeled out her bike I noticed that the wheels were a lot smaller than on my bike. Even with the seat height adjusted so my legs extended comfortably, I felt a bit like a circus clown on a too-small bike, with my legs going around too fast. It felt like I was in too high a gear for riding on a flat surface, yet there were no gears to shift. But it was fun to twist the handlebar for the motor and have it assist me as I pedaled, or zoom me along with no pedaling, like a scooter. When I came to a steep incline that normally would have taxed me, I just increased the motor assist and took off.

Susan told me that when she wanted a workout, she rode her regular bike, relying on the electric bike for getting around and schlepping stuff in the rear crate and front basket. I wanted to just have one bike, and be able to ride full-out on my own power at times. I was prepared to invest more money on a bike with gears, rather than buy the $750 Volto model from China that Susan has.

I decided to try an American-made bike designed by Dr. Malcolm Currie, former CEO of Hughes Aircraft. I found a number of Currie models online, including a used one on Craigslist that I test rode. While it had gears, I found them a bit awkward to shift. And it had a lead battery, which is heavier and tends not to hold a charge as well as a lithium ion battery. I was also intrigued by Sanyo’s Eneloop bike, after reading an online description of its regenerative technology, in which braking actually charges the battery. But it was no longer available through the stores that sold it in the past, so I was concerned about investing in a technology that might have problems.

From Susan, I’d learned the Volto bike came in models with gears. I called the local distributor, Fermin Cruz, who agreed to bring a 26” bike with gears to his space at the Broadway Village Farmers Market on the following Friday morning.

I loved how it rode. With the regular-sized wheels and six gears, I could propel myself unmotorized at a decent speed and get a workout if I wanted. It shifted easily, and the motorized controls and brakes worked well. With its aluminum frame and light battery, I could lift it easily over a curb (and later up into my shed).

My only real concern was this was an “open box model” — a bike someone had returned. That meant the price was reduced, but was there a problem with it? Cruz told me that the woman who had bought it was at the upper end of the weight capacity for the bike, and was not into pedaling. So the one-third horsepower motor was just not giving her enough power. She returned it, and he used a kit to outfit a bike with a half-horsepower motor for her. Since I’m a lot lighter, I found that even when I wasn’t pedaling, the bike moved me along at a good clip, and I had no trouble climbing a hill.

Cruz was willing to do repairs on the bike, if necessary, at a reasonable rate. He also put tire goo in the rear tire, so that if it got a small puncture, it would reseal itself. The battery is good for 15 to 20 miles, and Cruz recommended I wait and see if I’d need a second battery ($300) to extend the range. The charger is lightweight, and it’s possible to bring it along and recharge the bike if I take a longer ride to a place I’ll stay for a few hours. By buying the used bike from Cruz, I got a $900 bike for $750, with a brand-new battery and full-year warranty. I was happy.

I’ve continued to be happy in the two months I’ve owned the bike. In the morning and evening, it’s been pleasant to ride even in hot weather, and as it cools down, I anticipate riding more. There is a good guard over the chain, so I can ride in a skirt or loose-legged pants without a problem. I can ride to a breakfast business event and then stop at a health food store on the way home. I can combine a visit to friends with a trip to my bank and the nearby office supply and hardware stores. Even combining errands, I don’t make more than a 15 to 20 mile loop, so I have not bought the spare battery.

In calculating the operating costs of my bike, I started with the cost to charge it. Using the figures in the manual and the Tucson Electric Power summer rate, I got a cost of .2 cents per mile. I guesstimated costs for maintenance and depreciation using information from Cruz and the web, and came up with total operating costs of 14.7 cents per mile.

In 2010, my 2001 Subaru Forester cost 50 cents per mile to operate, including gas, maintenance, insurance, registration and depreciation. I feel so good riding the bike, I’d like to estimate the benefit of increased health and work productivity, but I have no idea how to do that. The bike’s payback distance is 2,295 miles. At 30 miles per week, that makes the payback time 18 months. I’m heading out on an errand now!

Deborah Mayaan is a healing practitioner and writer based in Tucson. www.deborahmayaan.com.